Chemistry of our basic lives

Illustration by Ed Appleby
Illustration by Ed Appleby

Are we eating, wearing, and using chemicals?

By Himanshu Verma, Contributor

Most people understand that chemicals can be harmful, and try to avoid them in excess, but that does not mean that their life is free from chemicals.

According to, there are about 79,788 synthetic chemicals presently on the market, and this number continues to grow. Most of the consumer items we use, from toiletries like toothpaste, soap, and shampoo, to cosmetics like deodorant, perfume, lipstick, blush, and fake tanner, to the processed food we eat, contain a lot of chemicals. Our lives are infested by chemicals scattered around us. However, how much they affect our lives depends on the chemicals being used in a particular product, as they range from safe to unsafe to harmful depending on the chemical’s use, exposure, and handling.

Pesticides, PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), parabens, BPA (Bisphenol A), and ammonia—these are some of the commonly used chemicals that have become a part of our lives, and they are seriously affecting our health and safety. Limited exposure to pesticides, used in sprays and sanitizers, can cause effects such as nausea, change of mood, insomnia, and irritation, while frequent exposure to pesticides can damage kidneys, nervous, and reproductive systems, and even cause cancer. PVC—commonly used in plastic products, including plastic food containers and water bottles because of its easy availability and low cost—releases a highly toxic substance when burned called dioxin. Further, leakage of phthalates from plastic containers and water bottles into food and water can damage the endocrine system and cause harm to children and pregnant women. Equally harmful are parabens, used as preservatives in cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, and some food additives, because they can also cause endocrine problems, as well as decreased male fertility. In the same vein, BPA, found in hard plastic, is known to affect the quality of women’s eggs. Ammonia from cleaning products causes irritation to eyes and lungs, and, on coming in contact with skin, causes rashes and burns. When mixed with bleach or a chlorine product, it releases deadly chloramine gas.

A study by natural deodorant company Bionsen has revealed that women, on average, put 515 chemicals on their bodies every day: hair spray contains an average of 11 chemicals; a normal shampoo contains approximately 15; eye shadow uses 26; blush, 16; lipstick, 33; foundation, 24; nail polish, 31; deodorant, 15; body lotion, 32; and fake tanner, 22. Lastly, perfume is a cocktail of nearly 250 chemicals. Bionsen’s research revealed that ethyl parabens, methyl parabens, propyl parabens—the major constituents in blush, body lotion, fake tanner, and other beauty products—are most damaging; they cause rashes, irritation, and hormonal disruption in the body. Phthalates present in nail polish, eye shadow, and hair spray affect fertility tissues, cause hormonal imbalance, and damage other body organs. Benzaldehyde, an ingredient in perfumes, causes kidney damage and nausea as well as irritation to the mouth, throat, and eyes. With the advent of more sophisticated cosmetics and beauty treatments that claim to cause wonders in a short time, there is every reason to believe that more and more chemicals are being used in these products.

According to another study by Environmental Working Group (EWG), women on average use 12 beauty products and host a minimum of 168 chemicals on their bodies each day, whereas men, who use about six products on average, carry about 85 chemicals on their bodies. Teens on average use 17 personal care products that may carry hormone changing chemicals. Most cosmetics companies have defended their use, claiming that these chemicals can’t be absorbed by the body, and according to the American Cancer Society, “Most scientists and regulatory agencies believe that it is very unlikely that cosmetic ingredients have serious health effects because of the low dose from such exposures, even with regular use.”

A study by researchers at the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine suggests that methyl paraben, an ingredient in more than 16,000 products including toothpastes and moistures, may mutate on exposure to sunlight, causing premature aging of the skin and damage to DNA. No wonder, calls these cosmetics “a cocktail of industrially produced and potentially dangerous chemicals that could damage our health, and, in some cases, rather than delivering on their patent ‘anti-ageing’ promise, are causing us to age faster.”

As cosmetics are somewhat an unregulated area of consumer products lawaccording to Scott Faber, Vice President of EWG, we should continually pay attention to the beauty and personal care products that we use. It may not be altogether possible to avoid the intrusion of these chemicals in our lives, but we can certainly keep them at arm’s length by choosing paraben-free cosmetics and personal care products, using natural or organic brands of consumer products, discarding PVC material, and using phthalate-free plastic instead.

EWG has also been looking into the use of chemicals in cleaning products that release formaldehyde, which can cause skin allergies. The chemical is added to the cleaning products and personal care items to act as a preservative. Since formaldehyde is a skin sensitizer, repeated exposure to it may cause an allergic reaction.

Use of chemicals in processed food is a matter of grave concern because they have direct effects on our bodies. Another analysis by EWG has revealed that out of an estimated 84,000 processed food items on sale in American super markets, more than 27 per cent carried harmful artificial trans fat. Another 10 per cent are made with ingredients that may include trans fat. In most cases, the labels do not show the trans fat content because of federal food regulations that allows the reducing of less than half a gram of trans fat per serving to zero.

Dawn Undurraga, an EWG nutritionist, says: “Most people would not know they were consuming unhealthy trans fat, because when they see zero or trans fat-free on a label, they assume it means what it says.” EWG has listed food items with definite or probable hidden trans fat exceeding the prescribed World Health Organization’s recommended limit of less than two grams per day for an adult. Trans-fat consumption could be the underlying cause of cardiac arrest, depression, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Refined oils, artificial flavours, food colours, and emulsifiers are some other food products that contain trans fats. To be on the safe side, avoid processed food and switch over to organic food as often as possible. In a recent report published in by Colin Fernandez, there are around 50 chemicals commonly found in items such as fried potatoes, hand wash, and sun block creams that in low doses are known to have negligible effect on the body, but combined with other chemicals, they may trigger certain reactions that pose a risk of leading to cancer.

The report says: “Current approaches to the study of chemical exposures and carcinogenesis have not been designed to address effects at low concentration or in complex mixtures.” Cancer biologist Dr. Hemad Yasaei of Brunel University in London said, “This research backs up the idea that chemicals not considered harmful by themselves are combining and accumulating in our bodies to trigger cancer, and might lie behind the global cancer epidemic we are witnessing. We urgently need to focus more resources to research the effect of low dose exposure to mixture of chemicals in the food we eat, air we breathe, and water we drink.”

We must make efforts to live chemical-free lives to make a positive change for our own health; we are not laboratory guinea pigs.